The Tibetan and Himalayan Library

The Tibetan and Himalayan Library (THL) is a publisher of websites, information services, and networking facilities relating to the Tibetan plateau and southern Himalayan regions. The University of Virginia hosts the technical infrastructure, which supports the integrated archiving, analysis, and exhibition building of images, audio-video recordings, immersive objects, maps, place dictionary entries, rich historical studies of terms, bibliographies, interpretative essays, maps of conceptual structures, literary texts, and thematic studies of specific places and subjects. This allows scholars and institutions from around the world to use THL, as well as Tibetan communities, as a means to build large collaborative repositories of collections and reference resources, and then use these resources to build their own independent web sites as published by THL. Functionally, THL promotes the integration of knowledge and community across the divides of academic disciplines, the historical and the contemporary, the religious and the secular, the global and the local. In addition to more typical academic projects, THL promotes participatory knowledge that is created by and benefits local communities, while including contributors from all walks of life around the world. THL’s knowledge and technology are provided free of charge, and are built collaboratively by hundreds of people across the world who share this vision.

The Basics

THL was founded on March 1, 2000 in conjunction with the University of Virginia Library and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The Library currently consists of four overarching domains designed to collaboratively solicit, generate, and publish data and scholarship on an international scale: Projects, Journal, Places, Reference, Community, and Tools. We are currently in the process of gradually relaunching three additional domains: Collections, Encyclopedias, and Instruction. A true digital library system consists of three interwoven components each with their own internal complexities:

  • a complex and integrated technological infrastructure with supporting tools
  • diverse and extensive content ranging over various disciplines and types of media
  • a community of producers, publishers/archivers, teachers and users

Thus the central nexus of the digital library concerns technology, knowledge, and community. Politics – in the neutral sense of how we build and sustain human communities – is at the heart of the digital library, which allows for new kinds of communities organized around knowledge. Exploring and developing the partnerships that can sustain these new initiatives is one of the most exciting, and difficult challenges which faces us. Technology is thus used not as an end in itself, but for its tremendous power to create new forms of knowledge and community, as well as unprecedented intersections between the two. This marriage of content and community entails, necessitates and enables a fundamental transformation in how we generate, acquire, organize, refine and disseminate knowledge. The thinking through of the implications of this transformation has just begun, and yet it is a process which must go hand in hand with the technical development of digital libraries if we are to fully exploit their possibilities. Thus, in addition to technological issues, the development of the digital library as an institution – beyond the mere technical achievement –  requires and enables rigorous intellectual and political re-envisioning of how we go about creating and disseminating knowledge.

THL as a Publisher

THL is a publisher, not a website per se. Just as a print book will bear the name of its publisher on the cover and/or title pages, but otherwise highlights the title and author, a THL publication has a THL logo and site map link, but otherwise is fully devoted to the content being published. Thus the banner is specific to the website being published, as are all the menus providing navigation. However, the THL index link in the upper right hand corner provides easy access to other THL publications, analogous to how print books may list other books in a series on the back cover.

What are the benefits of being published by THL, in contrast to simply self-publishing on your own web site, or that of your institution? Firstly, just like traditional print publishers, THL offers a dissemination network that guarantees users will find your work. THL itself attracts many visitors, and uses its portal pages and mailing lists to profile new works. Secondly, THL provides complex and expensive infrastructure for digital publication that is powerful, attractive, easy to use, and supports multiple types of digital objects, just like a traditional publisher provides the basis for printing paper, binding, and so forth. Thirdly, THL to some degree provides editing and design services, again just like a traditional publisher. Fourthly, Unlike traditional publishers, THL provides vast repositories of data that any THL-published project can draw upon and integrate into its own publications – images, audio-video, maps, dictionary entries, and more.

In addition to these formal publications which are independent Web sites that visitors can consult, THL also offers numerous services to other Web sites through streams of data that can be incorporated into a non-THL web site. For example, a given Web site may want to incorporate a THL map, images, an essay, or other resources into its own Web pages, rather just linking off to THL as a separate web site. The Digital Library thus uses technology to promote an integrated environment in which publishing can be as granular or as expansive as a scholar is ready to produce, and multiple scholars in far flung areas of the world can work together on joint resources in intimate, and constantly coordinated fashion. A series of collaborative ventures is at the library’s heart, which multiple scholars and projects work on in an ongoing fashion. Individual projects are then hung off these joint resources at various points. What is exceptional is that the library not only publishes works, but also archives it for long term access; it not only allows for book length publications, but also publications of a single sentence; and it allows for extensive media forms to be integrated with textual analysis. In addition, publications from different disciplines sit side by side in integrated fashion; a single click can change the language of presentation, or shift from a scholarly presentation to a popular one.

THL as a Library and Archive

THL also archives the publication for permanent reference in the manner of a library or archive. Like an archive, readers will find primary resources and data – manuscripts, individual images, individual recordings, and so forth. THL thus holds the fundamental building blocks and matter out of which scholarly products are built. Like a library, THL holds a myriad of publications that visitors can access online free of charge. In this way, it incarnates the new publishing system enabled by digital technology with its publication of both finished interpretative products, and the underlying resources and building blocks from which those products were fashioned. In addition, we are committed to gradually integrating THL Collaborative Reference resources with THL publications, so that readers can easily access extended information about a word, place, person, or subject. In this way, THL can offer not just access to publications, but also offer a virtual reference room experience where extensive specialized reference resources are at a reader’s fingertips. In effect, reference works are perfectly integrated with collections, so that users can go from a major essay to the dictionary, to a bibliographic reference, to a gazetteer entry, and then back to the essay again.

THL as a Social Network and Source of Engaged Scholarship

THL is not merely a publisher, library and archive, but also offers social networking facilities, as well as the means to facilitate scholarship to have socially productive impact in Tibetan and Himalayan Communities. The social networking functions include its provision of the THL Research Collaborative Laboratories, a term which signifies the extensive online submission and editing facilities we offer. In addition, we are finishing up a social networking application which provides information about individuals, organizations, and projects. THL’s agenda of engaged scholarship and the socially productive uses of knowledge is revealed in multiple ways. One example is the Geotourism initiative, which repurposes information about Tibetan places and communities to help facilitate more responsible forms of tourism in the region. Another example is the Participatory Knowledge initiative, which supports local communities in using technology to document and better understand their own situations, as well as use the products to engage in self-representation to others.

Communities and Knowledge: Citizen Scholars

Schools are by definition communities organized around knowledge. Our vision of the digital library is built upon the commitment to the central importance of community in the creation, refinement, and dissemination of knowledge. We thus see these new libraries as servicing a broadly conceived community, and using knowledge to help create and sustain communities that help bridge the various divides that characterize the world. We believe one of the most central virtues of the use of digital technology is its ability not only to transform creation of, and access to, knowledge, but also in its extraordinary ability to transform the communal basis and use of knowledge. We believe technology can be, and should be, used to help create communities across disciplines, across the scholarly/popular divide, and across cultures. Overall, it involves a radical re-envisioning of the scholar from a solitary producer of specialized knowledge, to a more community-based vision of the scholar. This means scholars collaborating in terms of the communal generation of knowledge, and also being more responsive and accessible to the various communities in which s/he is embedded. The same applies to individual institutions, which have tended to pursue their own institutional aims in isolation, and be skeptical of consortium arrangements or other types of close coordination with other institutions.

Thus THL is bound up with an effort to promote and support community relations within Tibetan Studies, and Tibetan communities, with a special focus on digital initiatives. It offers a digital portal to articulate, support and integrate the multiple communities of agents involved with the creation, production, and dissemination of knowledge of any type about Tibet and the Himalayas. The digital library is centrally about people, collections and tools, which together constitute an information community bound together by a common concern for knowledge on a particular subject. Our vision, partially utopian and partially pragmatic, is of communities organized around knowledge, and knowledge organized around communities. We are beset by the multiple fragmentations which currently govern both the diverse types of agents of knowledge – fieldworkers, media specialists, technicians, scholars, editors, publishers, distributors, librarians, readers, and others – and the diverse types of domains of knowledge – disciplinary, cultural, linguistic, national, specialized, popular, and others. This fragmentation damages the quality and type of knowledge produced in contemporary times, as well as renders the creators and distributors of knowledge unresponsive to the multiple communities to which they are morally and practically obligated. New Web technologies enable us to uniquely meet these challenges in order to simultaneously enhance knowledge and community, thereby maintaining intellectual and moral integrity. An intelligent and sustained use of these technologies allows us to usher in a new era of knowledge that is profoundly interdisciplinary and collaborative in character, as well as providing unprecedented access.

We aim to promote communication, mutual support networks, and long term integration between distinct projects and organizations of diverse types and national bases. We are committed to the deep interrelation of knowledge and community at all levels, and in particular to the balance between the international and the local in knowledge, community and their integration. Given that our chosen field of endeavor is a particular region of the world, we are also particularly concerned to help empower residents of that region as agents of knowledge in the fullest sense both in the creation and utilization of knowledge. Our Participatory Knowledge initiative is committed to a new paradigm of the distributed production of knowledge, in which each and every citizen across the world is potentially a valuable and valued source of authentic knowledge. Defining a “scholar” as someone centrally involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge, our commitment is to a world of citizen scholars where every individual is potentially a scholar, and every community potentially a scholarly community. When we expand our conceptions of knowledge and who can produce it, the resultant knowledge is more extensive in quantity, more diverse in perspective, richer in quality, and more socially useful to a broader range of communities.